Irrational Games, the makers of the critically acclaimed Bioshock series, announced on their website that they would be shutting their doors and laying off all but 15 of their employees. Mastermind Ken Levine stated that he intends to move onto smaller, more narrative heavy games that will be delivered exclusively through digital means in the future. The last release from Irrational will be the second part of the downloadable content for Bioshock Infinite, Buried at Sea. Though initially saddened, I do wonder if maybe this was the best time to bow out after all.
Obviously, smaller, narrative heavy games does not include Bioshock as we know it. Though the exact amount of money it cost to make Bioshock Infinite remains a hotly contested number, there's no real doubt that it was one of the most expensive games ever made. The $200 million price tag often thrown around was denied by Levine, but between developmental delays, the constant revision of features, and the massive marketing campaign you could easily compare the endeavor to a blockbuster Hollywood summer film.
The effects of that money came through, too. Infinite was beautiful on a level that was damned near spiritual. The voice acting was top notch, the world wonderfully created, and the mind-bending story a true work of storytelling. It was a smart first-person shooter that challenged players to think and was pretty damned fun to boot.
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It was also a critical success. If The Last of Us hadn't come out in 2013 then there is no doubt Bioshock Infinite would have been the uncontested Game of the Year across the board. Even with Naughty Dog's brilliant zombie thriller Infinite held its own. As of July 2013 it had sold 4 million copies. So why? Why does the studio responsible for one of the biggest hits ever in gaming shutdown and bow out?
Well, consider the sales for a minute. 4 million is a lot of units, but even if Infinite was made for as little as $100 million (The lowest I will entertain), that's netting you just $25 profit per unit. Plus, games simply don't have the merchandising empires to fall back on for extra dough like movies do. There's a reason you see a ton of LEGO titles these days and it has nothing to do with how much developers enjoy making those games. Add in piracy and the fact that new sales of games disappear after three months (At best) as everything becomes trade-ins that net the makers not a single cent in revenue, and big budget gamemaking becomes insanely risky.
Even for a game like Infinite that was all but destined to succeed.
At the end of the day, Infinite made just enough money to fund another go at the Bioshock universe. That go would have to be even bigger, even better, even more daring (And by definition less of a safe bet) in order to please fans and live up to expectations. Considering the long, arduous journey Levine went through to bring us the first three games, is it any wonder that he wants to bow out now? The life of a AAA game studio is a life lived constantly on the edge of complete failure, which is why you see so many Calls of Duty and Maddens. Those are sure bets you can count on.
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The Bioshock trilogy tells a complete story. It really does. It ends with the revelation that there are infinite worlds all intersecting with one another and all playing out different versions of the same scenario. Each game touches on different extreme ideologies, and takes us through the unfortunate culmination of adhering to those ideas whatever the cost.
Is there more that could be explored? Certainly. A steampunk moonbase following the TANSTAAFL principles, or perhaps you could have a World's Fair in Nazi Germany that dealt with Hitler's occultism. There are better ideas, I'm sure, but just because you could do these things doesn't necessarily mean you should do these things. You have only to look at how God of War overstayed its welcome with Ascension to see that sometimes franchises need to end. When the credits rolled in Infinite, I felt like I'd seen all I really needed to see. The game put to rest both its own story and the story of Rapture in one big bang. ~fin, you know?
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Will I miss it? Of course, but I'd rather miss what I love than see it turn into something that I don't care much for anymore. That's why I don't read the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics anymore.
Ken Levine turned the most meatheaded genre in gaming into an epic masterpiece of philosophy, and in doing so launched a trilogy that can really be considered gaming's Star Wars. I think dialing it down a bit and going another route is not only the best thing for Bioshock, but also for one of the geniuses I would like to see continue making games for many years to come.
Then maybe, just maybe, a decade from now he'll wake up one morning and think, "There was a man, and a girl in trouble, and a lighthouse, and a city" and it will be as glorious as the day Lara Croft walked back onto our screens.